Amazon threatens workers rights, data privacy and democracy.
Amazon is amassing power in ways that threaten a future of inequality, poverty and irreversible climate change.
Black Friday and Cyber Monday have become key days in an annual calendar for workers around the world to challenge Amazon – the company that has made Jeff Bezos the richest man in the world – and the protests taking place today and Monday part of a critical battle over the shape of the economy for years to come.
The threat is so great that on Cyber Monday in Brussels, unions, regulators, civil society organisations are holding the first-ever symposium on Amazon’s global impact on economies and society.
On Friday in Germany, 2,300 workers walked off the job on strike. Workers held a rally in Spain, protests in France, and in London today, GMB are protesting at Amazon’s London HQ over the company’s missing £89 million in taxes.
Whilst horror stories of the conditions warehouse workers face have grabbed attention, there are many reasons to be concerned about the company’s growth.
Amazon is not just the dominant portal for online shopping, but also it is seeking to dominate other strategic infrastructure in the 21st century market: cloud services, and logistics and distribution. The competitive advantage it gains from its use of big data allows it to squeeze out competitors.
The use of computing power to process vast amounts of data raises issues of civil liberties and privacy. In the UK, EU regulations on data protection attempt to provide some protection from overreaching companies abusing big data.
But critically, immigration enforcement is an exception to general rules on data protection. Earlier this year, Amazon’s Alexa collaboration with the NHS raised concerns about how personal health data would be adequately protected.
And it was the role of Amazon’s web cloud services that caused significant internal rebellion by staff and others in July 2019 and 2018.
People including warehouse and tech workers protested the company’s provision of cloud services to the US government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as their contractors such as Palantir, who use Amazon’s web services to run digital surveillance of undocumented migrants.
This digital surveillance facilitated the rise in immigration raids and deportations under Trump’s presidency.
The fact that Amazon tech workers are starting to speak out highlights the shift of new digital platform companies like Amazon, from start-ups with supposedly strong liberal values, to increasingly powerful companies aligned with the security state – Mega-Corps straight out of a Cyberpunk trope.
As Amazon’s domination of online sales grew and grew, the impact has been felt in the loss of brick and mortar retail jobs.
They have been replaced by dangerous and precarious warehouse and delivery jobs. Amazon workers in these roles across the world tell similar stories of constant electronic surveillance and ever increasing performance targets set by an unaccountable algorithm.
They face greater risks to health and safety, proven by the large number of ambulance call outs compared to similar facilities, which campaigners highlighted through publicly available data.
As well as market power, Amazon’s political power is creeping into people’s lives as it expands its distribution centres and other physical business sites.
To decide where to locate its US HQ, it ran a competition between different municipalities to see which would be willing to offer tax breaks and other incentives.
In the end – despite offering US$3 billion in incentives – Amazon pulled out of locating a HQ in Long Island City, Queens, following a hard-fought community and union campaign.
In the UK, the GMB union highlighted the 36 public sector contracts worth £660 million that Amazon had been awarded since 2015, whilst in the US campaigners estimate Amazon has benefited from $2.7 billion in public subsidies including tax breaks.
These eye-watering figures contrast sharply with public disquiet about the amount of tax Amazon pays into public coffers relative to its turnover and profits.
Amazon does not reveal profits or corporation tax payments for its entire UK operation, whose turnover we know is £10.9 billion.
However, its warehouse and logistics arm, Amazon UK Services, contributed just £14 million on £2.3 billion worth of sales.
Given Amazon’s collaboration with immigration authorities in the US, it is a sweet irony that it was largely Somali warehouse workers in Shakopee, Minnesota, who were successful in bringing Amazon to the table where the company has fiercely resisted union efforts elsewhere.
They were supported by Amazon tech workers who have organised to speak out about Amazon’s involvement in immigration enforcement, the use of facial recognition and other surveillance technologies as well as Amazon’s climate impact.
These community and worker struggles to challenge Amazon’s growing power – and negative impact on climate change, inequality and poverty – will shape the 21st century.
We must support workers’ so that they can speak out without fear. If Amazon’s power grows unchecked and continues to bolster authoritarian responses to the injustice it helps to create, then the future looks bleak.
The battle over Amazon will help determine whether technological innovation addresses these global challenges, or entrenches inequality. It is a battle we cannot afford to lose.
Owen Espley is a senior labour rights campaigner at War on Want.
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